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'You have to listen'

In the autumn of 1957, a month before the Soviet Union's Sputnik launching turned Americans' attention to more-global matters, Life magazine addressed itself to a teen-age custom being viewed ''with much alarm'': ''going steady.''

Sending cameras and reporters to Chappaqua, N.Y., and Evanston, Ill., the editors recorded the earnest debate between teen-ager and teen-ager, and parent and parent.

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The faces in those photographs seem so young and innocent! The boys are groomed, as if auditioning for an Andy Hardy movie. The girls wear dresses. It is, metaphorically, the world of the senior prom, presided over by that most benign of high school principals, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It is also the world of ''Father Knows Best'' child-rearing.

''Old-fashioned discipline can keep a girl from going with a boy she shouldn't date,'' one mother says confidently. ''You simply tell her she can't do it.'' With equal assurance a father adds, ''Don't be alarmed. Parental guidance will help with any problems that might arise.''

How quaint this adolescent idyll of a quarter of a century ago seems today! The teen-agers of 1957, now parents of the teen-agers of 1982, and readers of magazine articles about teen-age drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy, and teen-age drunken drivers, must think wistfully about a time when to ''go steady'' or not to ''go steady'' was about as complicated as life could get.

Within a decade the stability of that post-World War II world began to fall apart. A President was assassinated. ''Establishment'' became a dirty word, and ''protest'' a thrilling one. There was violence at home and in Vietnam. Inevitably, the heat of the dialogue in the larger society affected the dialogue between parents and teen-agers.

Exactly 10 years after the Life magazine debate, the Harvard psychologist Erik Erikson came out with ''Identity: Youth and Crisis.'' What was formerly an upheaval associated with the ''delinquent,'' Erikson said, was now the normal experience. ''Youth'' was considered one long ''identity crisis.''

What a negative attitude toward teen-agers ensued as such views were oversimplified! Just to be a teen-ager was to be a ''problem.'' Seven years, full of energy and promise, came to be viewed as a crisis to survive - a period for all parties to endure rather than enjoy.

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This negative view of the teens has prevailed for a decade. But now, in the ' 80s, there are indications that the perception of teen-agers, and teen-agers' perceptions of themselves, are improving.

How have things changed since the rosy '50s and the black '60s? Where does the joint enterprise of teen-agers and family stand today, and what is it moving toward? To find some answers to these questions, the Monitor talked to parents and il17l,0,26l,10p3teen-agers, as well as teachers and ''youth'' specialists, in schools, homes, and offices from California to Massachusetts, with stops in between in the heartland of Minnesota and Illinois.

It would be presumptuous, given the multiplicity of points of view, to claim a consensus. But on the whole, there is a cautious, rather surprising optimism - a sense that both parents and teen-agers are being perceived as individuals rather than stereotypes, that new and more flexible terms of negotiation are being worked out.

If the '80s will never recapture the innocence of the '50s, the '80s will never succumb to the helplessness of the '60s, either, when adults and teen-agers were cast in the roles of perpetual adversaries.

In considering some of the specific ways the participants of 1982 see the scene, themselves, and one another, it seems appropriate to begin with the parents, for the change in attitude among adults may be the most significant - and least publicized - part of any story about teen-agers in the '80s.

One new posture among parents that has received notice is what has been presented, a little too simplistically, as a return to old-fashioned discipline. The phrase ''tough love'' has not only caught on, but become institutionalized as a kind of methodology by a nationwide organization with headquarters in Pennsylvania. In books with titles like ''The Coming Parent Revolution,'' and in groups with names like ''Parents Are Responsible'' and ''Families in Action,'' the prevailing attitude is anything but laissez-faire.

In theory this might appear to be a revival of the old parents-know-best dogma. In practice the new awareness of the need for discipline is often far more thoughtful and complex.

Carmel (Calif.) High School is a low, sprawling structure with a million-dollar view of Carmel Valley, as green, lush, and placid as Eden. A mile away, twisted Monterey cypresses and pine overlook the Pacific, unrolling serenely onto the white sand of Carmel beach. The word Carmel, according to a local travel brochure, means ''at rest.''

But the families who live in this charming village of less than 5,000 are sometimes anything but at rest. An organization called ''Parents Who Care'' meets regularly at Carmel High School to cope with the stresses upon families in the late 20th century. Churches in the area offer five programs for teens, but in the new mood of the times, Carmel parents feel nobody can do their job for them.

Ken White, school board president and father of two teen-agers, speaks for the growing consensus: ''Maybe I'm too strict. Maybe I'm an old fogey. I really feel the parents are the ones who have to be in control.

''Three thousand miles away, in her neat-as-a-pin apartment in the inner core of Boston, Faye Parker, a widowed mother of four teen-agers, sounds much the same note:

''There were times when my kids thought I was very old-fashioned, I suppose, and strict. I suppose I made some mistakes, but I found the way I was brought up wasn't that terrible. There are certain things I still believe now because my parents taught me those things. I knew right from wrong. I respected my elders. I believe in God. I was taught education was important.

''When this thing started with the teen-agers and the drugs and this and that - parents didn't seem to take a stand on trying to find out why, or do something about it. They just took it for granted: 'It's here. Kids on drugs. Little 12- and 13-year-old kids are getting pregnant.' It's like they just accepted it, that this is the way it is. They think there's not really anything they can do. Maybe there isn't, but they can try. You can't just let a kid rear himself.

''But few parents, even when they speak most conservatively of ''old-fashioned discipline,'' are returning to anything like the self-deifying role implied in the old phrases like ''Never mind why. Just do it.'' There is a genuine humility. One hears again and again, ''We don't have all the answers by any means.'' In the spirit of the times parents are laying down the rules of the game - not only for teen-agers but for themselves. ''You have to listen '' - the urgent reminder pops up in almost every conversation, even though it might be followed by: ''You never quite know what they're thinking.'' Again and again the parents keep using certain words and phrases: ''Mutual respect.'' ''Be honest.'' ''When you give your word, live up to it.

''This modesty includes taking responsibility for past and present tensions in the family. In Carmel, Maureen Girard, a member of the Parents Who Care chapter, confesses: ''If we're dealing with kids who are drowning, the parents feel they're drowning, too.

''Joyce Mayers tells her fellow members of Parents Who Care: ''Thirty years ago there was great emphasis on responsibility. Now the heavy emphasis is on people's rights. You can't have a responsible society unless somebody takes responsibility. In the last 30 years or so we've systematically withdrawn meaningful tasks to perform in the home and the community.

''The problem has been generated by people our age. Kids are living out what is presented as a cool life for adults. If drinking, sex, and a loose-living life style are what adults are doing, then the kids will try to emulate that.

''If adults in 1982 are not sure they are so great, they seem positive that teen-agers are not so bad.

The professionals - the ''experts'' - who are also often parents of teen-agers, are in the forefront of the cheerleaders.

Frank Rainaldi, a junior high school principal in Hopkins, Minn., had just completed his first year as a math teacher when the Life report came out. He recalls: ''Everything was upbeat. There was the baby boom after World War II. Kids were going to school in very much the same fashion I had done, just 10 years earlier.

''Then it started to change. We hit the mid-'60s, and we went through a decade that was really tough, working with young people. Kids weren't willing to listen or to talk things out as much as they are today.

''Today they're a much more positive group of people to work with. They're just as aware of what's going on around them in their environment, politically, economically. But they've learned to be more responsible in what they do with their feelings. Kids say, 'I get so angry sometimes I'd really like to hit something or someone, but I don't want to act on those feelings.' That's the part that's come about today.''

''I'm pretty tickled about where kids are today,'' Dr. Rainaldi continues. ''They've become more responsible. Grades are more important again. They are dressing differently. Maybe that's just an old adult value of mine, but I think that as they dress differently, some of the things that as recently as five years ago they were still pretty much into - things like drugs and alcohol - they no longer experiment with and abuse as much. The abuses are much less severe, because there's a larger group of kids who really help one another to do the right thing - to 'stay straight.'

''Yet Dr. Rainaldi the optimist is also Dr. Rainaldi the realist. ''The problems haven't all gone away,'' he admits. ''That'd be Pollyanna to say, and it'd be inaccurate. It's not true.

''Like seismologists with a Richter scale, the statisticians of adolescence are quick to measure the magnitude of those problems: A million-plus teen-age pregnancies a year; 5,000 suicides; 11,000 car fatalities involving a teen-age driver; more than 1,000 arrests for murder among teen-agers under 18. The figures are numbing - and intolerable.

Yet even here small signs of change - and hope - spring up like crocuses in the late-winter snow:

The rate of juvenile crime, although still high, hasn't risen since the mid-' 70s. A 1980 Justice Department report noted a 6 percent decrease in all arrests of youths under 18.

And even after conceding that 41 percent of adolescents drink beer five times a week and ''80 or 90 percent of them are experimenting with a variety of substances,'' a group of hard-bitten professionals, dealing with ''chemical dependency'' in Minnesota, found realistic grounds for optimism - and not just because the high school statistics on marijuana use, and indeed on the use of all ''mood-altering substances,'' appear to be dropping, according to the latest figures from the National Clearinghouse on Drug Use in Rockville, Md. Despite the fact that Americans of all ages still remain drug-dependent beyond levels in other countries, the Minnesota physicians, psychologists, and counselors, speaking on an NBC round table, expressed a conviction, borne of their experience, that adolescents were ''seeing through'' the short-term and illusory relief of drugs.

Peter Bell, executive director of the Minnesota Institute on Black Chemical Abuse, went so far as to state: ''There is a spiritual revival in the country. . . . In a very simplistic sense, what I see happening is that people are going back to historical ways of coping with stress. I think people are starting to grope with the issue.

''Still, nobody is pretending that the situation is easy.

Therese Burke, a secondary school resource teacher in Needham, Mass., and a mother of four, speaks for the consensus when she says: ''It's tough to be a teen-ager today. So much more is expected of them. Their world is much more complex.

''And there is equal agreement for the summary of the other side offered by Theodore Duchene, chief of staff at North Shore Children's Hospital in Salem, Mass.: ''I think it was so much easier to be a parent 25 years ago. We each knew our role.

''Now we live in a world where there's a thousand experts telling the kids, 'Do your own thing.' 'If it's love it's good.' 'It can't be bad if it feels good.' And a beer commercial tells you, 'Drink with gusto. You only go around once.'

''If you put all these messages together and the poor parent sits there and says, 'You shouldn't do this . . . ,' then the kid goes to the movies and reads the magazines where people do all these things we're telling them not to do, and they always come out right. So kids live in a fantasy world. When everybody's telling kids the parents are wrong, it's tough.

''The mixed messages get further complicated by a double standard toward teen-agers. ''We emulate youth, and we heap abuse on young people at the same time,'' says Robert St. Clair, a junior high school principal in Hopkins, Minn. ''We want to be in their place.

''In a fascinating new book, ''The Disappearance of Childhood,'' Neil Postman documents the confusion. Adults wear pseudo-children's clothing: sneakers and blue jeans. Twelve- and 13-year-old girls, made up as baby-faced seductresses, work as high-fashion models. In behavior, clothing, language, attitudes, and desires, Postman charges, it is hard to distinguish between the ''childified'' adult and the ''adultified'' child. Couple this with shifts in public policy about juvenile justice, adolescent work and wages, medical rights, and legal drinking ages, and the questions become even more complex: What is a teen-ager? Who is an adult?

The uncertainty can trigger stereotypes - and fear. Dr. Duchene speaks for many parents when he says: ''We're sometimes frightened of them.'' At such moments, parents in the '80s may not be above regarding the teens as a near-outlaw age that exists between Lovable Child and Responsible Adult - an age that drove even Shakespeare to cry, as Dr. Duchene points out: ''I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest.

''Fortunately, parents in the '80s are no longer prepared to leave the situation as an irreconcilable matter of Us and Them. ''Hopeful'' rivals ''scary'' as adjectives that come up often in interviews. If parents no longer expect automatic obedience, like the parents of the '50s, they no longer seem to expect automatic defiance, either, like the parents of the '60s.

The parents and teen-agers of the '80s also share a special comfort in realizing, as the generations of the '50s and '60s did not, that all this is not ''their'' problem but ''our'' problem - a situation to be worked out through dialogue rather than opposition, as allies rather than enemies.

In a poll published about a year ago under the title ''The Private Life of the American Teen-Ager,'' Jane Norman and Myron Harris asked 160,000 teen-agers: ''What are your greatest fears?''

''Losing your parents'' was checked by 58 percent. The teen-ager's fear of his or her own dying came in a very distant second - 28 percent.

The Norman-Harris survey concluded that their most important finding was that teen-agers ''really do care about their parents. They get mad at us, and they rebel against us - but they love us.''

''Most kids love their parents,'' Mrs. Burke observes, echoing the comments of other teachers and professionals. ''They talk with such enthusiasm about getting them Christmas presents and birthday presents. They're proud of their parents. They really do want to please the people they love.''

We have come a long way from the famous battle cry of the '60s: ''Never trust anybody over 30'' - which, for a teen-ager, exempts very few parents. We still may have a long way to go. But in this discovery of kinship, rather than in the theories or mediation of ''youth'' specialists, lies the best present hope for teen-agers and those who love them - even according to some of the specialists.

''I know a lot of parents who love their kids but don't like them,'' says Dr. Duchene. ''If you like your kids, you've got it made.''

Tomorrow: New attitudes toward old stereotypes about teen-agers.

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